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The Upcoming Leap Second

The press, be it the general daily newspaper or the computer magazines, is currently informing the public about an upcoming leap second, which will be taken in the night from June 30 to July 1 at 00:00:00 UTC. While we Europeans will enjoy our well-deserved sleep then, this will be at 5 PM (17:00) local time on June 30 for Califormia people, and during the morning of July 1 for people in China, Japan, Korea, or Australia. (Other countries not mentioned for the sake of brevity.) This is different from last time, when the leap second was taken in the night from Saturday to Sunday (2012-July-1 00:00:00 UTC), so it was a weekend everywhere on the globe.

We have got several requests from our customers about this upcoming leap second, whether they need to take any special precautions or whether they "are safe". Well, obviously nobody is "safe" from the leap second in the sense that it would circumvent them, everybody will encounter it on their systems. The concern is whether they have to expect any trouble.

For the people operating MySQL (or any other DBMS), this issue is threefold:

  • How will the operating system behave?
  • How will the database system behave?
  • How will the applications behave?
  • Let us look at the operating system first, dealing with Linux only. (All other operating systems don't show up with significant numbers in our customer base.)
    Linux measures the time in seconds (since Jan 1, 1970, 00:00:00 UTC), and it does not include the leap seconds in this counting. When the leap second is taken, the timestamp value (those seconds) will simply not be advanced at the end of the regular second, but it will re-use its current value in the leap second. As a result, the conversion of timestamps into common time reckoning will still produce values from 0 to 59 for the minute as well as for the second, there will not be a 60. Another consequence is that there is no way to tell the leap second from the preceding regular one.

    MySQL always takes the time information from the Linux kernel, so it will also use the same timestamp value (or "now()" result) for both the regular and the leap second. The MySQL manual describes this on its own leap second page, which has become inaccurate by some recent code changes: We could not reproduce the results given there (and will probably file a documentation bug about this). However, that difference does not affect the principle of the page's first paragraph.

    About the application, it is hard to claim anything - there are too many of them. However, it is obvious that an application might run into trouble if it managed to store a new timestamp value every second and assumed they are distinct: they will not be (unless the application manages to skip the leap second). Let's hope any application programmer creating such a high-resolution application was aware of the problem.

    So does it all look fine? Not completely: Following the last leap second (just three years ago), several administrators noticed that their machines became extraordinarily busy, which even let the power consumption rise significantly. This was caused by a bug in the Linux kernel, it let user processes resume immediately if they were trying to wait on a high-resolution timer. The exact details are beyond the scope of this article, your favourite search engine will provide you with more than enough references if you ask it.
    For our purposes, the important fact is that this also happened to MySQL server processes ("mysqld") because InnoDB was doing such operations.

    Back then, Sheeri K. Cabral (well-known in the MySQL blogosphere) published a cure which her team had discovered:
    This loop can be broken by simply setting the Linux kernel's clock to the current time.
    date -s "`date`"
    While this looks like a no-op at first sight, I assume that it will reset the sub-second time information and so will have a small effect, which obviously is sufficient to terminate that loop. (In practice, you should stop your NTP daemon before changing the date, and restart it afterwards. The exact command will depend on your Linux distribution.)

    Well, this was three years ago. The issue was reported to kernel developers, a fix was developed (which gives credit to Sheeri's report) and applied to newer kernels, and it w as also backported to older kernels. From my search, it seems that all reasonably maintained installations should have received that fix. For example, I have seen notices that Ubuntu 12.04 (since kernel 3.2.0-29.46) and 14.04 do have it, as does RedHat 6.4 (since kernel 2.6.32-298); for other distributions, I did not search.

    In addition to a current kernel, you obviously need current packages including the leap second information. Typically, this would be "ntp", "ntpdate", "tzdata", and related ones. Don't forget to restart your NTP daemon after installing these updates!

    So I wish all our readers that the leap second may not get them into trouble, or that (if worst comes to worst) the cure published by Sheeri may get them out. However, I have to remind you of the old truth which is attributed to Mark Twain (sometimes also to Niels Bohr):
    "It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future."